Taking the high road
Saturday marks the opening of Rosemont Bridge, the 780-ft.-long structure that connects pedestrians and cyclists between Allen Parkway and northern and southern trails along Memorial Drive. From its unusual forked pathway to its views of the downtown skyline, the bridge represents a highlight in the city's evolving infrastructure.
CultureMap spoke via phone with one of the project's designers, SWA Group's Julia Mandell, currently on assignment in Shanghai, to gain insight on the bridge's conception.
CultureMap: Were there any precedents that inspired the bridge's design?
Julia Mandell: It was designed in relation to the Hobby Center bridge that we had designed as part of the Bagby to Sabine project. The idea was to continue that language of basic materials. In a sense, it was taking that palette and applying it to a pretty audacious alignment. Rosemont is almost like a highway interchange bridge, which is ironic given the Houston setting.
When we started thinking about supporting it with these intermeidary supports, we began looking around at other bridges with ambitious technical requirements in terms of the curvature and length — and we realized we couldn't afford it. Bridges like Calatrava's and the Millennium Bridge all cost in the $10 to $20 million range. The Rosemont Bridge, including fees, was only $5 million. We wanted it to be beautiful but also really fit the budget.
CM: The bridge's name and design has changed over the course of its planning. How was the final look determined?
JM: In 2008, we started honing in on a final design. It went through a bunch of iterations in shape and alignment. From the very beginning we had the idea for this curving truss bridge. Originally there was a plan for a straight span bridge, but there was the question of how to get down to the bayou while also spanning the highways. There were plans for all of these crazy stairs, and it was this very complex vertical circulation thing, so we reexamined.
CM: What was it like working with the Buffalo Bayou Partnership?
JM: SWA has been involved with Buffalo Bayou Partnership for a long time. We have a really rich relationship with them. Our CEO Kevin Shanley drew their masterplan in 2003, but the entire idea of this pedestrian connection has been circulating for 10 years, maybe longer.
CM: Can you elaborate on the bridge's relationship to the surrounding area?
JM: It will create a north-south pedestrian connection on Montrose to make it easier to get from the Montrose neighborhood to the Heights. The other important idea is to create a loop along the bayou. Otherwise, the trails are a four-mile stretch without a crossing. That was the reasoning for where the connection is — in order to make it really useful, it became obvious pretty quickly that it needed to cross both Allen Parkway, the bayou and Memorial.
CM: How did the team maintain cost efficiency?
JM: We were able to do it within our budget because we're in Houston, and because Houston is the base of the offshore oil industry. We found an offshore refinery fabricator, King Fabrication, that has a huge shop. They have nice craftsmanship, and it's not like they typically work with architects, but they really got excited about this project. They engineered the whole thing and did the curving truss. I've found only one other bridge in the U.S. that was a curved truss. The Rosemont Bridge was prefabricated, which means it was made in segments that were brought in with cranes. With prefabrication, the biggest expense is shipping. But since the parts were made here in Houston, that cost was diminished.
One of the fun things about being a designer in Houston is the way it operates with no zoning and the public/private partnerships that arise from the unique way we operate. It gives you a lot of freedom. People say that's a problem, but for the designer it can be really great. It was the TIRZ [Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone] board that wanted to do this and saw the possibility. There was room for that individual passion, but also it's just what you do in Houston: Say, "I want to do this thing, and I'm going to do it."
CM: To what extend do you think the bridge will become a destination in the city?
JM: It remains to be seen how much of an icon it would be. I can't say. I hope so. There are also two more major bridge connections planned for pedestrians across the bayou, with the hope that those bridges will also be pretty exciting, intensive projects. I think there's the possibility to create a string of unique bridges and have them together be an icon.